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Indigenous Group Keeps Ecology All in the Family

John Roach
for National Geographic News
June 29, 2006
 
For the Raramuri people of the northern Mexico region of Chihuahua,
conservation is a family affair (map of Mexico).

The Raramuri (also known as the Tarahumara) speak a language that has no concept of—and thus no word for—wilderness, says ethno-ecologist Enrique Salmón.

Wilderness is a European word that connotes a separation of the land from humans, said Salmón, who is Raramuri.

Instead the Raramuri relate to the land with the same energy and affection as they do their own human family members and neighbors.

Salmón calls the concept kincentric ecology.

"[We] are immersed in an environment where we are at equal standing with the rest of the natural world," he said.

"They're all kindred relations: The trees and rocks and bugs and everything is in equal standing with the rest. We are caretakers, stewards, of all this around us."

Thinking What You Speak

Salmón is a program manager at the Christensen Fund, a grant-making organization in Palo Alto, California, that supports biological and cultural diversity projects.

He says that language is the foundation of cultural identity, giving shape to the way people think and act.

"Language and thoughts work together. They can't be separated," he said.

"So when [a people's] language includes words like 'wilderness,' that shapes their thoughts about their relationship to the natural world.

The notion of wilderness, he adds, carries the connotation that "humans are bad for the environment."

"If the language doesn't include that connotation, then again it shapes that kind of thinking," he continued.

Since the Raramuri care for the environment as they care for family and neighbors, they are prone to protect it, keep it healthy, Salmón says.

But the ethno-ecologist predicts that within a generation or two, the Raramuri language will disappear, and with it their kincentric land ethic.

More than a decade of drought and the pressures of globalization are pushing Raramuri youth from their traditional lands in the remote mountains of Sierra Tarahumara.

The youth are moving to the cities, adopting a different language and a new frame of mind, Salmón says.

"Those choices are affecting this next generation of speakers and potential land managers," he said.

Lost Archives

The scenario of indigenous languages and beliefs fading away is being seen throughout the world.

Salmón cites the work of anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis, a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, who has documented this decline. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

In a 2003 essay for National Geographic News, Davis wrote that there are roughly 6,000 languages spoken today, but half are not being taught to the speakers' children.

"Unless something changes, effectively [those languages] are already dead," he wrote.

(Read the full essay: "Explorer on Initiative to Document Cultures on the Edge")

According to Davis, losing languages and cultures also means the loss of a "vast archive of knowledge and expertise" of the human experience.

"Every view of the world that fades away, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life and reduces the human repertoire of adaptive responses to the common problems that confront us all," he wrote.

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